Today, May 15, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it has suspended accepting gifts from Sackler family members associated with Purdue Pharma, the drug manufacturing company that produces OxyContin. Purdue Pharma is accused of purposely mismarketing the opioid as less addictive than it is. The Sacklers, who are widely known for their cultural philanthropy at institutions like the Louvre, British Museum, and many others, have been coming under increasing scrutiny for their possible role in fueling the opioid epidemic in the United States.
The New York Times reported that the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) has also stopped accepting donations from the Sacklers. The AMNH has confirmed this information with Hyperallergic but declined to provide additional comment.
In March, Tate galleries in London and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York announced similar policies in the wake of prominent public discourse chastising the Sacklers for purposely bolstering the opioid crisis. The National Portrait Gallery in London also returned a £1 million (~$1.3 million) donation from the Sackler Trust. The UK’s Sackler trust, which says it has donated over £60 million (~$79 million) to UK organizations since 2010, subsequently suspended its philanthropic donations.
There are currently over 1,500 lawsuits filed against Purdue Pharma; the states of New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts specifically name the Sacklers in their cases. On March 26, Purdue and the Sacklers settled a lawsuit brought against Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies by the state of Oklahoma. Purdue and the Sacklers agreed to pay $270 million to the state, partially to fund a new addiction treatment and research center at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose, and the number of deaths involving opioids increased six times between 1999 and 2017. (OxyContin was launched in 1996.)
The Met has been reviewing its gift acceptance since January. Yesterday, the museum’s Board of Trustees voted to alter gift acceptance policies, which are now available on the museum’s website. In a press statement, the museum said the review “was precipitated in part by recent scrutiny of gifts received from individuals related to the production of opioids and the ensuing public health crisis surrounding the abuse of these medications.”
“The museum takes a position of gratitude and respect to those who support us, but on occasion, we feel it’s necessary to step away from gifts that are not in the public interest, or in our institution’s interest,” Daniel H. Weiss, the president of the Met, told the New York Times.
In a statement included in the NYT’s coverage, the Sackler family members associated with Purdue Pharma explained that “while the allegations against our family are false and unfair, we understand that accepting gifts at this time would put the Met in a difficult position.”
The Met’s Sackler Wing — home to the popular Temple of Dendur — opened in 1978 with funds provided by Purdue Pharma co-founders, brothers Arthur, Raymond, and Mortimer Sackler. (Arthur Sackler died nearly a decade prior to the creation of OxyContin.) Its construction cost approximately $9.5 million (about $36 million in modern currency) and identified the Sacklers as “major donors” to the wing.
In March of 2018, PAIN Sackler held an action in the Temple of Dendur, filling the space with fake prescription bottles and accusing the Met of complicity in the opioid crisis. More recently, in February of this year, the group held a demonstration on the steps of the Met following a die-in at the Guggenheim.
The drug advocacy organization, which was founded in 2018 by photographer Nan Goldin, demands “that all museums, universities, and educational institutions worldwide remove Sackler signage and publicly refuse future funding from the Sacklers.” They also demand Purdue Pharma give at least 50% of its profits to organizations working to solve the opioid crisis, and that the Sacklers use their personal funds to do so as well.
In a statement sent to Hyperallergic, PAIN Sackler said:
We commend the Met for making the ethical, moral decision to refuse future funding from The Sacklers. Fourteen months after staging our first protest there, we’re gratified to know that our voices have been heard.
As litigation across the country continues, we believe the courts’ decisions will prove the Sackler name is synonymous with the opioid crisis, as it is their grotesque inhumanity that has led to the deaths of so many.
Purdue Pharma, their private pharmaceutical company, has erased its own logo from their headquarters to avoid further protests. It’s time for all cultural institutions to follow their lead and remove the toxic Sackler name from their walls.
Weiss says that the museum will not be removing the Sacklers name from the wing as legal action against the family continues and new information becomes available.
Editors note 5/15/19 4:08pm: This article has been updated to include a statement from PAIN Sackler and an additional line about the group’s February protest at the Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museums.